Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Lest we forget

This evening I posted this comment on Facebook,

The 28 members of my extended family tree who died in the two world wars ... the 199 Barnsley POWs listed in the Chronicle in August 1918 ... the 107 Barnsley men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916 ... lest we forget.
I had just changed my profile picture to a Remembrance Poppy.

So why do long dead soldiers and sailors make me a) well up with tears and b) proud to remember them?

Some might suggest that we have been, over the years, guided to feel this way by propaganda promulgated by various political parties who use our combined feelings of sorrow over lost loved ones and guilt that it wasn't us dying, to promote nationalistic outpourings which support the policies of the current government. That some experts somewhere have decided that this is the proper and acceptable way to behave and by setting us an example and hours of television programming  to back them up we have all been encouraged to think/act the same way.  I may have been reading too much Laurajane Smith (The Uses of Heritage) and Patrick Wright (On Living in an Old Country) but have you noticed that since we became heavily involved in first Iraq and then Afganistan that the army is much more respected than it was only a few years ago and hundreds of people (I may be underestimating ...) now turn out to pay their respects to repatriated deceased solidiers, something that I don't remember happening in the Gulf War or even the Falklands.  That it is hard to find a good viewing spot to stand on Remembrance Sunday now that so many more people come to pay their respects.  Do they?  Have they come to think about the people who have lost their lives defending our point of view or have they come to be seen to have come?

A few years ago the OH and I went on one of those coach tours of the World War 1 battlefields and cemeteries.  I had persuaded him that as the hotel was in a fairish sized Belgium town he would, at least in the evenings, be able to go and have a few interesting beers, if the whole WW1 tourist bit had been too much for him.  As it turned out our guide was fantastic, really knew his stuff and how to explain it to us.  And oddly to have the lie of the Allied and German lines pointed out by waves of the hand as we stood gathered by the side of the road in the lee of the coach did seem to make it all more understandable.  Yes, in such and such a battle our men had to walk about fifty yards, but it was uphill into well dug in machine gun nests, and the ground was pitted with shell craters and bodies and they were actually WALKING upright, not crawling like they do in war films nowadays.  Oh, what a combination of bravery and stupidity ...

I recently found a listing of 199 Barnsley men who were taken as Prisoners of War in the First World War.  I'm trying to find out more about their background, their service records if I can (although 60% were lost in the Second World War during the blitz that still leave a lot available through Ancestry) and if possible how and when they were taken as prisoners.  Quite a few so far appear to have been taken prisoner in early (April ish) 1918 which was the period of a 'big push' by the Germans, a last ditch effort for them to win the war as they were really feeling the pinch at home and on the front.  Many of the Barnsley men report wounds to the feet, legs and in one case buttocks (funny now, but not at all then I am certain!) which coincide with their capture.  They simply couldn't keep up with their comrades in the retreat, they got left behind and swept up by the advancing Germans.  Some of these men had survived the horror of the Somme, no previous wounds (maybe a bit of a problem with gas ... but nothing serious ... no blighty one to send them home), no (for private soliders anyway) home leave for nearly four years (enlisting in 1914/15 in the first flush of Kitchener's Army) and now spent the last eight or nine months of the war in a Gefangenenlager, literally a camp, "lager", for the imprisoned, "gefangen".  They couldn't have known the war would end within the year, conditions in Germany were bad enough for the local population with serious food shortages so the prisoners can't have had a a very comfortable time.  A report from a returning prisoner printed in the Barnsley Chronicle notes that "they would have starved without the kindness of the Belgian citizens ". 

A relative of my OH was interned in Holland in October 1914; luckier than POWs internees (men detained by neutral countries and prevented from returning to the war), were allowed home leave.  Thomas Croft, not realising this initally had 'escaped' from Holland and reported back to the authorities in England,  they were obliged to send him back for the duration of the war.  He was, however allowed a fortnight's leave in 1916 and another at the end of 1917, beginning of 1918. Their daily rations, described in a letter to the Barnsley Chronicle, were probably generous compared to those permitted to prisoners in Germany in 1918.

I am only part way through collecting the stories of these 199 POWs.  Some of them lead me on long chases through census returns, electoral rolls and parish records finding huge amounts about their families and their life before and on their return home.  Some I am lucky to find a Medal Card - I am convinced they gave misleading information or supplied false names, but nothing new about that is there?

So why do I well up and simultaneously feel proud when I see a poppy?  It's nothing to do with national pride or sense of personal grief - it's just an overwhelming feeling of sympathy for the men and their families, their sufferings and losses, and a wish (futile I suppose) that we could just stop sending fathers, sons and brothers off to die.  But as long as we do have to (so they tell us), at least the men are willing to go and go with their heads held high. It's not a job I could do ...

Soldiers from the 5th Battalion York and Lancs leaving York for the Front in 1915 [a screen shot from a film found on the Yorkshire Film Archive website]

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